On this day in comedy on March 5, 1954, Comedienne, Actress, Marsha Francine Warfield was born in Chicago, Illinois
A night at comedian Tom Dreesen’s place changed phone company employee Marsha Warfield forever. Prompted by her friend, Evelyn, Warfield went up on the open mic and got laughs and got hooked. A career in comedy seemed a foreign idea, though. There were no relatable role models. She was from a different mold than Moms or Lawanda Page. How do you become a working stand-up? When she met Elayne Boosler it became clear. Warfield said the way was paved for her and others thanks to trailblazers such as Elayne along with Judy Tenuta, Sandra Bernhard, Diane Nichols, Shirley Hemphill and Shelly Pryor. Outside of Phyllis Diller these women knew of no other stage comediennes and it wasn’t like they were having tea with Phyllis daily so they made their own rules. In the case of Marsha Warfield those rules worked.
Warfield got her break when comedian and Richard Pryor collaborator, Paul Mooney picked her when he assembled a cast of virtual unknowns for The Richard Pryor Show in 1977. She was blunt, sexy and uncompromising. The powerhouse comedienne had made her mark on the stand-up comedy circuit and Mooney knew she’d be equal to the task of writing and performing with the red-hot Pryor. At that time, Pryor was the comedy god. Or as she once said, “God takes second billing as far as Richard was concerned.” So, there were high expectations. She didn’t disappoint as Warfield and the rest of the cast made an indelible impression in the four short episodes they had on network television. However, the failure of the show left her depressed with thoughts of quitting comedy. That was until she won the prestigious San Francisco National Stand-Up Comedy Competition in ‘79.
By the time she gained fame on the NBC hit sitcom, Night Court Warfield was seasoned and had a reputation of reliability. Though short on acting experience, her deadpan, straight delivery to bailiff counterpart, Richard Moll was as good as team comedy gets and nobody in television gave a better cynical look. The Chicago native embodied Roz to critical and fan approval and had viewers in stitches from 1986-1992.
Warfield pulled double duty in 1990. She was so popular NBC slotted her with a self-titled day time talk show where she and guests discussed hot topics of the day and got a load of laughs along the way. Her show was easy going and lasted for two seasons. Of course, it didn’t stop there. Following her run-on Night Court Warfield kept up her AFTRA status on the sitcom, Empty Nest playing Dr. Maxine Douglas from ’93-’95. She did major films (D. C. Cab, Mask, Caddyshack 2), television guests spots (Family Ties, Riptide, Cheers) and of course stand-up.
Then in 1995 tragedy struck. After her house was totaled in the Northridge earthquake, Marsha’s mother and her sister died within three months of each other. Not long after her “lifestyle” caught up with her so she took time to regroup. By the time she returned to the scene a lot of time had passed in show biz terms and newer faces had stepped in to fill the void. She eventually moved to Las Vegas. From there she kept her presence known via social commentary on sites and remained a living inspiration to a whole generation of comediennes who followed in her footsteps.
Marsha Warfield returned to the standup comedy stage in 2015.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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